Film 2018

 

It’s been quite a year for films. Not least because of Netflix and Amazon, both of which I feel a pressing need to subscribe to. Not every film that lands on either is worth watching to the end (although I tend to see them through out of professional pride, unless they are Nappily Ever After, and I have been halfway through the doc Chasing Trane for what must be five months for no reason whatsoever but inertia). But Netflix in particular possesses a voracious appetite for funding or distributing feature-length documentaries and A-list Originals that seems at present unquenchable. Frankly, I’m in, at least while that means luminaries as luminous as the Coens, Ben Stiller, Nicole Holofcener, Alfonso Cuaron, David Mackenzie, Gareth Evans, Paul Greengrass, Tamara Jenkins, Jeremy Saulnier, Duncan Jones, Andrew Niccol, Susanne Bier and Alex Garland sign up to make hay with the streaming platform.

It’s a subscriber’s market, as well as an artist’s. I still relish the chance to see big films on big screens – ironically, one of the most jaw-dropping this year was They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s trenches documentary, which I saw in 3D in a screening theatre, while most saw it in 2D on telly – but no technology can substitute inspiration. Heavyweight documentary was ubiquitous in 2018 (which is why I’ve cordoned it off and given the doc its own rundown), while the series or serial is dominated now by true crime that unfolds in visual podcast form – and there’s plenty of this on Netflix, to an extent that each rolls into one another. At least fictional, dramatic films still occasionally seek new territory, while Making a Murderer and its less original ilk merely slice the cake more thinly. So, to feature-length films.

I keep a strict diary that indicates at a glance the films that stand out – which, believe me, is vital when cinema has almost literally run out of titles. I know I saw Only the Brave, The Bachelors, Let the Sunshine In, Kodachrome, Cargo, The Rachel Divide, Dark Crimes, Bad Samaritan, How it Ends, Madame, The Last Witness, Final Score, Operation Finale and Hearts Beat Loud but I have no idea what any of them were about from memory. Maybe that’s just as well.

So here are my Top 11 followed by the Next 25, in an order that makes sense as I sit here, but may change and who would notice? I note that two of my Top 10 films – in fact, Top 5 – are in a foreign language (Spanish and Mixtec; Polish) and shot in black-and-white. Four in the Top 10 are not in the English language, and eight nations are represented. Only one entry is British; another a British/American co-production. One is both a drama and a documentary. I don’t know what that says about 2018.

  1. Roma | Alfonso Cuarón | Mexico
  2. The Old Man and the Gun | David Lowery | US
  3. Leave No Trace | Debra Granik | US
  4. American Animals | Bart Layton | UK/US
  5. Cold War | Pawel Pawloski | Poland
  6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri | Martin McDonagh | US
  7. Happy New Year, Colin Burstead | Ben Wheatley | UK
  8. Lady Bird | Greta Gerwig | US
  9. Western | Valeska Grisebach | Germany/Austria/Bulgaria
  10. The Florida Project | Sean Baker | US
  11. Wajib | Annemarie Jacir | Palestine

The next 26 are in no qualitative order; they are all excellent.

Peterloo | Mike Leigh | UK
Journeyman | Paddy Considine | UK
Apostasy | Daniel Kokotajlo | UK
BlackKkKlansman | Spike Lee | US
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs | Ethan Coen, Joel Coen | US
Disobedience | Sebastián Lelio | UK
Incredibles 2 | Brad Bird | US
Lean on Pete | Andrew Haigh | US
Zama | Lucretia Martel | Argentina
Phantom Thread | Paul Thomas Anderson | US
Lucky | John Carroll Lynch | US
Ghost Stories | Andy Nyman, Jeremy Dyson | UK
Deadpool 2 | David Leitch | US
Call Me By Your Name | Luca Guadagnino | Italy/US/Brazil/France
Yardie | Idris Elba | UK
Dark River | Clio Barnard | UK
A Fantastic Woman | Sebastián Lelio | Chile
Shirley: Visions of Reality | Gustav Deutsch | Austria (pictured above)
The Senator | John Curran | US
A Prayer Before Dawn | Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire | UK/US/France/China
My Friend Dahmer | Marc Meyers | US
Beast | Michael Pearce | UK
Custody | Xavier Legrand | France
Dogman | Matteo Garrone | Italy
The Breadwinner | Nora Twomey | Canada/Ireland/Luxembourg

I’m taking documentaries out and giving them their own list, as it’s near-impossible to meaningfully compare the life story of a tragic superstar with a fiction about boy saving his horse from the knacker’s yard, and it’s been a strong year for non-fiction.

Springsteen on Broadway | Thom Zimny | US
The King | Eugene Jarecki | US
The Eyes of Orson Welles/They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead | Mark Cousins/Morgan Neville | US/UK (when two fantastic documentaries on the same subject but from different angles come out in the same year, it’s OK to group them together)
Whitney | Kevin Macdonald | UK
McQueen | Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui | UK
They Shall Not Grow Old | Peter Jackson | UK/New Zealand
The Man From Mo’Wax | Matthew Jones | UK
Score | Matt Schrader | US
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story | Alexandra Dean | US
Filmworker | Tony Zierra | US

There are a few days to go, and with more leisure time in than usual, but I suspect I’ll be watching old black-and-white movies on Talking Pictures and TCM and DVD from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, as that’s what leisure time is for.

 

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Countryside alliance

GodsOwnCountrypair

As we slowly trudge into October and the last quarter of 2017, I find myself in analytical mood. What have been the best films of the year? I’ve seen a lot. Getting on for 200 at the end of September, which won’t be as many as an indentured national newspaper critic, but it’s enough to get a clear view, especially with all the smaller, independent, arthouse and foreign-language pictured that enhance my life. But I’m delighted to find that UK films have given me a particular thrill this year, many of them debuts. Two of them about farming.

Warming to my theme, let’s stick with films made by British filmmakers. These are not debuts, but they all speak of the fertility of homegrown writers and directors: Free Fire, the latest formal provocation by Ben Wheatley, struck me as personal and audacious; Terence Davies, a veteran, produced arguably his best work, A Quiet Passion; Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver felt like a gift to the world and a personal triumph; Roger Michell (South African-born but works here) bounced back with My Cousin Rachel, and Mick Jackson produced Denial, a strong, sure, wordy David Hare-adapted piece from another veteran long since thought lost to Hollywood. At the other end of the career scale, thrilling, idiosyncractic, varied debuts came from William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth), Alice Lowe (Prevenge), Gareth Tunley (The Ghoul), Mark Gill (England is Mine) and Christine Frantz (Bunch of Kunst). Welsh documentarian Jonny Owen’s Don’t Take Me Home, his second film, also showed talent, while Alex Barrett’s first feature-length doc London Symphony established his, and Daniel Draper’s Dennis Skinner: Nature of the Beast was clearly a labour of love.

The view, you have to admit, is pretty bracing. Which takes us to Yorkshire.

GodsOwnCountryview

The snapshot above was taken by director Francis Lee while shooting his debut, a deeply personal love story God’s Own Country. Actually, it’s his own country. His debut feature is based on his own life, brought up a family farm and forced to decide: should he stay or should he go? The story is built, though, around a gay male love affair, when a Romanian migrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) is hired to help farmer’s son Johnny (Josh O’Connor – best known to me as one of ITV’s The Durrells) when his father (Ian Hart) is disabled. It’s shot – beautifully, by Lee and cinematographer Joshua James Richards – around Keighley, and the very real lambing scenes were on the director’s father’s farm. It’s gathering laurels apace – Sundance, Berlin, Edinburgh – and ploughing its own critical furrow wherever it’s shown. (See if it’s still showing near you here.)

GodsOwnCountryposter

It’s my film of the year so far. A beneficiary of its setting, visually and metaphorically, it’s a small-scale story set against boundless fields and skies whose intimacy is twofold: it’s based on Lee’s own experience, and it depicts the eventual intimacy of two men. Some early devotees of the film thumbnailed it as Brokeback Mountain transposed to the Dales, but this comparison quickly sputters out, like a quad bike out of petrol. Johnny isn’t explicitly closeted – he enjoys hook-ups at the only pub for miles and his female friend (Patsy Ferron, recently seen in Jamestown on Sky) knows – but if his taciturn father knows, he would rather die than face up to it, and if his grandmother (Gemma Jones) keeps her own counsel.

GodsOwnCountrybath

It’s not a “gay” film in the militant sense. The two men’s relationship is far more than about sex, and they spend most of their time alone together, repairing a dry stone wall or involved in animal husbandry for days at a time, sleeping in sleeping bags in a remote shed, living on nothing but Pot Noodles and cans of beer. They are free to do whatever it is they want to do, with no disapproving eyes on them. The problem is not “society”. (Indeed, Gheorghe is the one who’s not welcome at the pub because of his ethnicity. At least Johnny is “from round these parts” – his transgressions are hidden from the eyes of bar-stool bigots.) Before Gheorghe’s arrival – his “welcome” is almost comically bluff, as Johnny shows him his shitty caravan and slams the door shut – Johnny is already at a crossroads about his future and his family, and dealing with it by self-medicating. The unexpected promise of a loving same-sex relationship is clearly more than he can deal with, emotionally.

TheLevellingEK

The Levelling (above) is an approximate and unintended companion to God’s Own Country in terms of its agricultural setting but also its generational conflict. In the former, daughter Ellie Kendrick, who left to qualify as a vet, returns temporarily to the family farm to bury her brother after his apparent suicide and finds herself at odds with their father, who had expected to pass on responsibility to his son, a handover made difficult by a failed insurance claim after the floods and dire financial straits. In Lee’s film, Johnny dreams of escape but cannot bear to leave his father, whose stroke has immobilised him. (Brilliantly subtle acting from Ian Hart in this supporting role: he is a tyrant but one you can empathise and sympathise with.)

Of the two films, God’s Own Country feels more real – and less melodramatic – than The Levelling, which to be fair aims for a much more Gothic pitch, full of wild flashbacks and never far from going up in flames. But both get their hands dirty and the farming feels totally authentic in both.

GodsOwnCountryduo

It feels good to have a film of the year brewing in October. Certainly a whole gang of films made or financed in the UK are giving 2017 a perhaps pertinently vivid sense of British identity in a year when we seem hell bent on tearing ourselves away from Europe and going it foolishly alone. Who knows where it will lead. But God’s Own Country might well be a film for Brexit, whether intended or otherwise. It’s certainly Gheorghe, the Romanian, who saves the rejected lamb from being culled using techniques he has brought with him to this country. Farming today, eh?